In the NBA’s so-called era of the superteam, the 2019 free agency cycle should solidify an age of competitive balance rarely seen in the league’s history. Only fitting that Kawhi Leonard is at the epicenter.
Stoic in his demeanor off the court, but electrifying on it, Leonard broke up the original superteam in Miami with his 2014 Finals performance for San Antonio. A half-decade later, his otherworldly showing guiding the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship ended another iteration of the superteam in Golden State. Toronto’s title leading into a raucous few weeks of free agency sets the scene for a wide-open and dare we say parity-driven time for professional basketball.
Leonard signing with the Los Angeles Clippers—despite the insistence otherwise of clueless talking heads and assorted other *cough* insiders—isn’t a complete shirking of the superteam model. A necessary component of the acquisition was a mortgaging of the Clippers’ long-term future to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George, after all.
And Leonard opting for the other team in Los Angeles did not break up other superstar pairings around the league. Kevin Durant left one star-studded grouping in Golden State for another with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, while Golden State reloads with the budding, young 2019 All-Star, D’Angelo Russell.
Kawhi Leonard Would Have Signed With Lakers If Not For Clippers' Paul George Trade https://t.co/uySIg3zGh9— RealGM (@RealGM) July 7, 2019
Philadelphia processes the loss of Jimmy Butler with the addition of Al Horford, constructing a defensive monster Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could envy.
It all kicked off in the same city where it ended, Los Angeles, with the Lakers pairing Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Despite not landing Leonard, Lakers brass still managed to form a nucleus capable of delivering a championship, with the right breaks. But then, the same can be said for any number of teams ahead of the 2019-2020 season.
Not to go all Syndrome from The Incredibles, but when everyone’s a superteam, no one is.
Don’t take that as a negative. Competitive balance should only further boost the NBA’s booming popularity. The probable infusion of new teams into the title picture, like the Raptors this past season, livens up a league most often criticized for being too predictable.
To that end, the Clippers are as much the ideal organization to usher this new landscape, as Leonard is the quintessential player to do so.
The Clippers have been competitive throughout the NBA’s social media age, which we can unofficially declare began with the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Just before that campaign, the Clippers added Chris Paul to a lineup that included fast-rising star Blake Griffin.
Los Angeles reached every playoffs since, save 2017-18. That’s seven postseason appearances in this era, matching the total the organization reached in the 41 years preceding it.
While the current, #NBATwitter generation knows the Clippers as reliable, if not unremarkable, they were once the league standard for ineptitude. To understand the historic significance of Kawhi Leonard signing with the organization at his peak, and helping to lure a fellow, MVP-caliber teammate, one must understand the Clippers’ 40 decades of futility preceding this age.
The original incarnation, the Buffalo Braves, were building an impressive upstart in the 1970s. Bob McAdoo’s tenure with the Braves is one of the most under-appreciated in NBA history, yielding three postseasons and the organization’s only MVP season.
Ownership engaged in some self-sabotage to move the Braves elsewhere, and landed in San Diego—ironic, given the reputation America’s Finest City has for ownership moving its pro sports teams.
San Diego’s also notoriously basketball-cursed: The NBA’s first foray there with the Rockets lasted only slightly longer than the time required to drive from Chula Vista to Oceanside. Not long after, the Los Angeles Lakers put the kibosh on the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors showcasing Wilt Chamberlain as player-coach.
The Stilt was instead just the Qs coach, and often manned the sidelines in a pair of flip-flops. When in Rome.
The arrival of the erstwhile Buffalo Braves did nothing to cure San Diego’s professional basketball ills. On the contrary, the sale of the newly christened Clippers to L.A. businessman Donald Sterling seemingly salted the San Diego earth on which some new hardwood might go. But it’s also not as if the city lost much with the organization’s move north.
Sterling’s three decades in charge were horrendous, producing sub-20-win seasons seven times -- three more than the total of Playoffs appearances. While the Lakers were A-list, the NBA’s Jack Nicholson, the Clippers were more akin to the Shamwow Guy.
This wasn’t an organization coveted players the caliber of Leonard opted to come. His addition alongside George is revolutionary, if not downright unprecedented.
Bill Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers shortly after leading the Portland Trailblazers to a championship, going on an individual run comparable to Leonard’s this past season with Toronto. But the San Diego native Walton came home on a bad foot that cost him a full campaign; he never returned to his superstar form, and was not the cornerstone the Clippers needed him to be.
The trade for Paul in 2011 proved transformational for the long-floundering club, but only came to fruition after the NBA nixed a deal that would have sent the future Hall of Fame point guard to the Lakers from the then-NBA-owned New Orleans organization.
Leonard and George are the first established stars and potential MVPs choosing to join any incarnation of the Clippers—L.A., San Diego or Buffalo.
This latest move in their respective career trajectories is fitting; neither Leonard nor George took traditional paths to superstardom. George played his college ball at Fresno State, which last spent any time in the national spotlight 20 years ago when Jerry Tarkanian was the head coach.
Leonard’s time at San Diego State elevated that program’s status in the college landscape, and helped revitalize San Diego as a basketball city. But no one will ever confuse the legacy of Montezuma Mesa with Tobacco Road.
Likewise, the history of the Los Angeles Clippers can never be compared with that of its cross-arena counterparts, the Lakers. In the new NBA ecosystem the 2019 free agent market has cultivated, however, history has no impact on the future.